‘El Nino’ lessens hurricane season

At the end of the 2005 hurricane season, experts were up in arms proclaiming gloom and doom for all coastal residents. Katrina was supposedly a harbinger of the true disaster on the horizon – but so far, the 2006 season has been relatively mild.

“I understand where (meteorologists) were coming from considering the destruction of Katrina last season,” said Jessica Cureton, a junior majoring in communications science and disorders. “I think part of it was concern, and I think part of it was just to get ratings.”

Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray are experts on the subject of hurricanes. Gray, formerly with the National Hurricane Center, has been a pioneer in the science of modern hurricane detection. Klotzbach has worked with him for years. According to their forecast of Atlantic hurricane potential, October should actually experience below-average activity. They claim this is due to developing El Niño conditions.

“When (experts) first put out (the 2006) predictions, they didn’t realize that we were going to come into an El Niño, so they had to modify their predictions and reduce the numbers,” said Jennifer Collins, a professor in the geography department.

Collins specializes in determining what causes hurricanes to vary from year to year. She agrees with Gray that El Niño conditions have been a factor in the lack of hurricanes this season, but added that La Niña conditions were expected for the 2006 season.

“During a La Niña phase, you tend to get weakened upper-level winds and therefore lower wind sheer, and that allows the hurricane to develop,” Collins said. “Because we thought we were in a La Niña, that’s why we thought we were going to get an above-average season.

“But the La Niña conditions didn’t stay around for long. We’re actually now in an El Niño phase.”

El Niño conditions are virtually the opposite of La Niña conditions. Because of this, preseason predictions called for far more hurricanes than the Atlantic or Gulf basins have delivered thus far.

“In an El Niño you have stronger upper-level winds,” Collins said. “The strengthened wind sheer means that heat and moisture can collect above the incipit disturbance, which means the hurricanes can’t grow.”

Floridians may be questioning the experts after their expectations were built up. But Burrell Montz, professor of geography at Binghamton University, advises Floridians not to be lulled into a false sense of security.

“There is no hurricane season that cries wolf,” Montz said. “If you don’t have a hurricane or you don’t have a hurricane that makes landfall where it can cause a lot of damage, that doesn’t mean we don’t have hurricanes – it might just mean that we dodged a bullet.”

Montz has been studying hurricanes and other disasters for years with an emphasis on vulnerability, a term that refers to the human side of natural disasters.

Hurricanes acquire their strength from warm water, and evidence suggests that temperatures in the Atlantic are rising. While this season was relatively mild, seasons in the future may be markedly different.

“Next year it’s quite likely we’ll get an evacuation (order) somewhere along the coast of Florida. It’s almost certain,” said Tobin Graham, a USF geography professor who specializes in natural disaster vulnerability. “Will people evacuate? Some will and some won’t.”

Preparing for hurricanes has been an important decision that Floridians have had to address for years. In light of recent evidence pointing toward global climate change, many more factors may have to be considered when making that decision.

“You have to always be aware and recognize where you live,” Montz said. “I think we have to recognize that hurricanes are not just coastal events, particularly in Florida, which is surrounded by water on three sides.”

Collins added that this is especially true when considering the potential of warmer Atlantic temperatures to spur the intensity of hurricanes to record levels.

“Last year there were a lot of intense hurricanes – Wilma actually made the record with 882 millibars (used to measure barometric pressure),” Collins said. “We had a lot of intense storms as well as the frequency. So there are some indications of possible global warming effect.”

The expert consensus points toward preparation.

Meteorologists are responsible for providing the public with the most accurate data available, but the choice to use that data falls on the individual.

“I think you should always be prepared no matter what, because you never know what could happen,” Cureton said.

Montz and Graham both emphasize the human side of hurricanes, especially in the wake of Katrina. The professors agree that the disaster served not only to point out failings in the national response, but also the response of the individuals who were directly affected.

“Make sure you look at the human side as well as the physical side, because even if we could forecast exactly when and where the hurricane is going to hit, it does not guarantee people will do anything,” Graham said.